I’m hoping that IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and open-wheel’s fanbase truly realize the impact of what happened last week in The Big Apple.
When the big screen at Yankee Stadium lit up with a 75-second video about George Michael Steinbrenner’s entry into IndyCar racing, most of the 57,000 people in attendance gave it a glance and then went back to baseball talk or looking at their iPhones.
But beyond the foul lines, it was a major merger of power – the most iconic sports franchise in America, and the most famous race track in the world were entering into a partnership that could leave a lasting impact on IndyCar racing.
Young Steinbrenner, whose father Hank is co-owner of the New York Yankees and whose late grandfather George was the polarizing leader of the 1970s dynasty, only has eyes for race cars. IndyCars and Colton Herta, specifically. At 22, he’s the youngest car owner in IndyCar history and spent the past two years backing Herta in Indy Lights with Michael Andretti’s team. He’s a polite, intelligent kid that listened, learned and then leapt at the opportunity to move up to the IndyCar series in 2019 with his second-generation talent.
And the bonus of this new team is that a young dynamo named Pato O’Ward is also part of the package. Between Mike Harding, Andretti and Hank Steinbrenner, the funding is being secured for the 2018 Indy Lights champion, who dazzled everyone in his IndyCar debut at Sonoma.
If having these two teenaged talents move up to the big time isn’t good enough news for IndyCar, then consider the positives of having the Steinbrenners in the IndyCar paddock.
I don’t pretend to know Hank. I met him at the unveiling of his son’s venture into Lights and then spent 45 minutes on the phone with him last week, but I can assure you that his passion for IndyCar is as genuine as it appears.
In that 2016 press conference at Andretti Autosport, he launched into an unprompted, 15-minute infomercial on why IndyCar was more compelling, exciting and relevant today than Formula 1 or NASCAR.
Whether or not you agree with his premise, Steinbrenner’s passion and knowledge can’t be disputed. He’s been an Indy 500 fan since the ‘60s, can rattle off some of the old paint schemes and sponsors, and brought his clan to the race a year ago, where they camped out across from IMS.
He also loved F1 in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when we all did, and has an affinity for drag racing. He sponsored a “digger” (his term) for Darrell Gywnn in the 1990s in the NHRA’s Top Fuel category. He’s incredulous that the Daytona 500 gets twice as many viewers as the Indianapolis 500 and wants to do what he can to try and get Indy car back on top. But unlike so many of the talkers, frauds and wanna-bees that infiltrate IndyCar on an annual basis, Steinbrenner is a respected businessman with a great track record that can do something about it.
The Yankees are valued as the No.1 franchise in baseball at $4 billion, and the breadth of Hank’s connections and sponsors are hard to fathom. This isn’t to say he’s going to spend every waking minute on trying to raise IndyCar’s national profile, and he’s already made it clear he’s not just writing checks to keep his son’s team afloat. But he will coordinate his sponsors into some kind of business-to-business relationship with the Harding/Steinbrenner team, and understands marketing and promotion like few people out on West 16th Street.
“We’re not here for one year,” the 61-year-old Steinbrenner told RACER.com last week. “This is something George and I both feel strongly about, and we’re here for the long haul. We’ve got two of the most exciting young drivers in America, and we’re keeping them. I think IndyCar is on the rise, and it’s a good time to be getting involved.”
Now, we’ve heard new owners say the same thing for decades, and they either run out of money before the season is half over, leave a trail of bad debts and are never heard from again… or stay true to their word.
The Steinbrenners are a huge name on the national sports front, and an ally like IndyCar has never had. Hank is a billionaire with more connections than a 12-pronged power strip, coupled with a passion for IndyCar racing that runs deep so this is an opportunity that IndyCar needs to embrace.
None of the IndyCar brass attended the first press conference in 2016 to welcome the Steinbrenners because somebody dropped the ball internally, and Mark Miles (who was in Europe selling the international TV package and meeting with engine manufacturers) and Jay Frye (in Switzerland for an FIA meeting) weren’t able to attend last week’s Yankee Stadium shindig.
But I suggest they fly to New York in the next couple weeks, take Hank and George out to dinner and thank them for raising IndyCar’s profile. And, more importantly, for becoming part of the IndyCar family for the forseeable future.
Pinstripes and pit stops have a nice ring to them.